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Almira, Otter Rock Village
On the day of the dragon slaying, Jolan woke an hour before dawn to prepare the supplies. Two spools of catgut stitches, all three healing mosses, one jug of boiled water, two skins of purified potato liquor, six tree-bark bandages, scissors, opium, all the knives, and, in case it was finally Bershad’s day to die, a white seashell to leave in his mouth, so that his soul would find the sea.
Jolan worked methodically, taking each item from the shelves and placing it in the correct pouch of the leather traveling pack they used to transport supplies. There were two floor-to-ceiling shelves in the workshop, each one taking up an entire wall. One shelf held dozens of glass bottles filled with different salves, reagents, fermented animal organs, and moss poultices. Jolan and his master—Morgan Mollevan—had painstakingly gathered them from the countryside or grown them in the humid greenhouse out back. The second shelf was also full of glass jars, but each vessel contained the same thing: a toxic red-shelled snail. They were becoming overpopulated along the nearby riverbanks, and Morgan had been contracted by the local small lord—Crellin Nimbu—to find an antidote to the snail’s poison. He and Jolan had been studying the snails for years, but the path to an antivenom had proved elusive.
Once the sun rose, the workshop would fill with a multicolored glow as daylight refracted through the bottles of their failed experiments.
Jolan used a stepladder to reach the Gods Moss, which Morgan kept in a small, locked wooden box on the top shelf so it was out of sight. The locals were too afraid of Morgan to rob the apothecary, but wandering thieves weren’t uncommon, and the Gods Moss was the most valuable ingredient in the apothecary.
Jolan saved the bone saw for last, since it required the most careful attention. He laid the long blade across the big wooden table in the center of the room, tested each tooth, and sharpened those that needed it. The last dragonslayer to come through Otter Rock had every muscle in his leg torn to ribbons by the great lizard he’d tried to kill. As Morgan was sawing the man’s leg off, the only thing louder than the dragonslayer’s screams were his master’s curses that the blade was too dull. Jolan wouldn’t let that happen again.
He was finishing the last tooth on the bone saw, internally congratulating himself on his foresight, when Morgan came down from his bedchamber above the apothecary. He wore a simple gray robe. A pair of sealskin gloves were carefully tucked into his belt. The gloves were designed for the radical repair of arteries and organs deep inside a dying man’s body. Morgan only took them out of the apothecary when there was going to be a dragon slaying.
Battlefield surgeons used them as well, but there hadn’t been a battle in Almira for thirty years. Not since the Balarian Invasion.
“Coffee?” Morgan asked, frowning. He had jet-black, unkempt hair that shot out from his head in every direction. Jolan often wondered how a man could spend five hours straight measuring herb packets by candlelight, but forget that his hair required combing in the morning.
Jolan looked to the idle stove across the room, as if a pair of sad eyes could materialize a pot of freshly brewed coffee. His first responsibility, from his first day as an apprentice, was to have coffee ready when his master awoke. He had lingered too long on the saw.
“I’m … the bone saw needed sharpening, and—”
“Forget it, there’s no time. Bershad will want to make his pass within the hour. Get the kit.” Morgan disappeared out the front door, leaving it open behind him.
Jolan packed the bone saw in a side holster of the pack, slung the thick leather straps around both shoulders, and followed. A dozen yards down the road, he matched pace with Morgan, leaning forward to account for the added weight.
“Why is a dragon best slain in the early morning?” Morgan asked. He was fond of quizzes when he was annoyed.
“It’ll be sluggish then, before it’s had a chance to sun itself.”
“And why does it need to sun itself?”
“They’re reptiles. The largest known classification. Like all reptiles, their blood requires outside warmth to supply their energy. He won’t reach full strength until nine, even ten in the morning. Before that, most dragons are either unable or unwilling to fly.”
“Are there any exceptions to this rule?”
“Just one,” Jolan said. “Ghost Moths are able to warm their own blood. But the source of the heat is unknown.”
Morgan nodded once, the only sign of approval he ever gave.
“And why do I require coffee in the morning?”
Jolan paused before answering, realizing where this line of questioning was headed.
“Coffee beans stimulate the human mind, allowing clearer thought at a faster pace. They also stimulate the colon, creating the urge to—”
“Wardens and brutish men with swords can afford to live out their lives half drunk,” Morgan interrupted. “They can always just bash a man’s skull in if they don’t have any better ideas. Our only weapons are our minds.” He looked down at Jolan. “We are defenseless without them. Never forget that.”
“Yes, Master Mollevan.”
They walked in silence down the forest path that snaked toward town, but Jolan could tell Morgan wasn’t finished talking. He had a way of tightening his hands into fists and releasing them again when he had more to say but didn’t particularly want to say it.
“It was good that you sharpened the bone saw,” he said at last. That was the closest Master Morgan ever came to apologizing for something. “We might need it today, even if it is the Flawless Bershad waiting for us.”
“Is he really as good as they say?” Jolan asked.
“In my experience, legends never live up to their reputations.” Morgan paused. “But Silas Bershad has killed more dragons than anyone else in Terra. The stories can’t be entirely comprised of vapor.”
Morgan’s tone was academic and dry, but Jolan got the sense he was excited to see the Flawless Bershad in action. Jolan certainly was.
The apothecary was two leagues outside of Otter Rock. The people of Otter Rock did not trust the alchemists, with their glass bottles and carefully measured ingredients. They preferred to sacrifice goats to nameless mud gods by the light of the moon and hope for the best. But when their wounds grew painful enough, they all came trekking up the forest path for treatment.
Copyright © 2019 by Brian Naslund